Revenge is a dish best served room-temperature, with dance moves. As part of a larger plan for coronavirus payback, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Monday night that the United States is “looking at” banning viral video app TikTok, a huge move that – if it comes to pass – would prove absolutely devastating to the app’s bottom line. The app currently boasts more than 800 million users and is broadly recognized as the most popular video-sharing app in the world – but all that would change if the app were to lose its American user base.
In an interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham on The Ingraham Angle, Pompeo was careful not to step on any toes or get out too far ahead of fellow administration officials, while maintaining a strict line on the app and on Chinese social media apps in general. The Secretary of State made several allusions to a possible ban and added that “we’re taking this very seriously.”
Americans should only download the app, Pompeo said, “if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.”
After Pompeo’s interview on Monday, Americans around the country started wondering about all this sudden animosity toward TikTok. Why now? Why TikTok? And – most importantly – is TikTok Communist?
The president was swift to answer on Tuesday, in an interview with Bloomberg news: banning TikTok is just “one of many” actions taken as retribution and punishment for spreading Coronavirus.
TikTok scrambled to counter the publicity damage done by Pompeo’s and Trump’s interviews, releasing a statement on Monday night. “We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked,” said the company.
Pompeo’s statements have only served to exacerbate pre-existing uneasy tension between the United States and China, which has seeped into geopolitical relations and affected other areas of international business, including technology, trade, and national security.
TikTok’s parent company is Beijing-based startup ByteDance. Because of that Beijing connection, US politicians have repeatedly accused the video platform of being a national security threat. Their main argument seems to be that TikTok is in cahoots with the Communist Party, and any information users put on the app might as well be spoon-fed directly to Mao Zedong.
To its credit, and perhaps in vain, TikTok has repeatedly gone out of its way to ensure users and American civilians that it operates independently from ByteDance. According to TikTok, the app’s user data centers aren’t stationed anywhere inside China, and therefore, none of the app’s user data falls under Chinese jurisdiction. Meaning, far from being a Communist vacuum for personal data, the app is safe and secure.
User data for each country is kept in the country of its users’ citizenship, says the company, meaning that American data is stored in, well, America – with backup copies of data stored for safekeeping in Singapore, according to TikTok. (Keep in mind that Singapore is also not under Chinese jurisdiction, nor is it a Communist country. Though it has a history of communist rebellions, Singapore is a democratic republic with a parliamentary government.)
Over the past several months, TikTok has boomed in popularity across the globe and throughout the United States, notable for being the first Chinese social media app to explode in popularity outside of China. In the first quarter of this year alone (January, February and March of 2020), TikTok was downloaded 315 million times. That’s enough for every American citizen to have downloaded the app at least once. According to Sensor Tower, a popular analytics platform, that’s the most quarterly downloads of any app in history.
All this volatility and uncertainty with the United States comes on the heels of global tensions, notably with India. Last week, the Indian government banned TikTok entirely, stating that the viral video app poses a significant “threat to sovereignty and integrity.”
It remains to be seen if Pomopeo’s and Trump’s threats will result in tangible, concrete action – or if they’re simply fighting words. If TikTok does receive a ban in the United States, it will be cataclysmic for the company, with far-reaching results around the world. It will signify America’s entrance into a new era of digital retribution and cyber-vengeance, as payback for perceived viral crimes – both the video and the biological kind.